Back on campus or distance learning: Many students are conflicted

Personal Finance

In response to the coronavirus pandemic, a growing number of U.S. colleges have said their campuses will remain closed through the fall semester. 

Still, students are heading back to school as soon as this weekend. For some, there is nowhere else to go.

About 52% of high school and college students said going back to school in the fall is a bad idea, according to one survey of over 7,000 people by research and opinion firm TruePublic. 

Others are more worried about the risk of living with vulnerable family members during the public health crisis, or don’t have an option.

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Nicole Toms, 22, will be a senior at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Unable to go back home to her grandparents in Florida because of concerns about their health and safety, Toms is living in an apartment off-campus.

With her work-study position on hold, she found a job at a local Target to make ends meet. When it came to her own wellbeing, “having a safe area was important but finances were more important,” she said.

She also received some financial assistance through the Horatio Alger Emergency Support Program, which has disbursed over $130,000 to more than 200 students.

Nicole Toms, 22, is going into her senior year at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

Nicole Toms

“We got hundreds of requests from people, beginning almost immediately,” said Jim Dicke, president of the Virginia-based nonprofit.  

“We wrote a lot of checks but also, in many cases, it was us helping them through some emotional or intellectual challenge over what they were going to do to put one foot in front of another.”

“Some of our students didn’t really have a home to return to,” Dicke said.

We wrote a lot of checks but also, in many cases, it was us helping them through some emotional or intellectual challenge.

Jim Dicke

president of the Horatio Alger Association

The common consensus is that students are eager to get back in the classroom, however, returning students are also anxious about in-person learning and what safety measures will be in place this fall.

Although Toms is living in Chapel Hill, she said she may choose to study remotely this fall, given the option. “My preference was to have in person classes, however, with the rising cases, I think I would now prefer remote classes.”

Many of the colleges and universities that are planning to reopen have said they will still offer all-remote classes to those students who wish to continue distance learning for now. 

Meanwhile, new cases have been steadily increasing across the so-called Sun Belt, driven by Florida, Texas and California, which collectively have made up nearly half of all new cases in the U.S. in recent days. 

Mannet Dhaliwal, 22, graduated from Rutgers University in May and is moving south regardless of the risk to begin her first year of medical school at the University of Virginia.

“Some friends are very comfortable at home and they don’t really care if it’s online,” Dhaliwal said. ”I am just happy that I will be away from my parents who are more at risk than I am.”

“I just hope everyone is wearing masks,” she added.

There’s no perfect one way for everybody,New York-based psychologist Leah Lagos said of returning to school. “It’s so important to consider the variables in this decision.”

And still, “it will feel uncomfortable,” she said.

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